Evergreen Court investigative questions remain after six indictments

SPRING VALLEY – One of two men charged with manslaughter and arson faces a court hearing Friday in an adult home fire in which a firefighter and an elderly resident have died.

Aaron Sommer is scheduled to appear before Spring Valley Judge David Fried at 10 a.m. He is being held on $ 200,000 bond in the county jail.

The pre-trial felony hearing will take place three days after Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh announced that Sommer and his father, Nathaniel, were charged with manslaughter and arson, among other charges, in as part of the March fire at Evergreen Court Home for Adults.

Four other people, including the head of the Spring Valley Building Department, its chief inspector and the facility manager, also face charges.

Spring Valley volunteer firefighter Jared Lloyd and Evergreen Court resident Oliver Hueston died in hell and the building collapse that followed.

Before Jared Lloyd died at Evergreen Court: Calls to the facility have raised concerns

Hopes raised: Spring Valley raid raises hopes of broad investigation into corruption and lack of enforcement

Spring Valley Fire: Two building inspectors among 6 accused; two accused of manslaughter

Despite the public and tragic nature of the fire and a special press conference organized to announce the arrests, authorities left many questions unanswered, including the exact cause of the fire, the reasoning for the arrests and the extent of the arrests. the survey of the village building code enforcement.

The arrests covered a wide range, including actions believed to have been linked to the cause of the fire, the falsification of construction records and actions taken before the night of the blaze.

Here is what is known and what remains to be answered.

What are the fees?

Nathaniel and Aaron Sommer, a father and son who are both rabbis, were charged with the same crimes, including two counts of second degree manslaughter, two counts of second degree assault and fourth degree arson, in addition to misdemeanors.

Nathaniel Sommer has been released on $ 200,000 bail paid by Covenant Bail Bonds, according to the Spring Valley court. Aaron Sommer remains in custody in the New City County Jail pending Friday’s hearing.

Village building inspectors Wayne Ballard and Raymond Canario are accused of filing false reports to the state regarding fire inspections. Their charges included a felony, offering a false instrument of deposit, and a misdemeanor, forgery of second degree business documents.

They were treated and released to appear in Spring Valley court in July, Walsh said.

Brooklyn-based Evergreen director Denise Kerr and Pomona’s Manuel Lema face misdemeanor charges. Arrest warrants have been issued; it is not clear whether the arrests were made.

What did the Sommers do?

The Sommers had torched the industrial ovens in the adult home on March 23, just before the fire, as part of a pre-Passover cleaning ritual.

John Tomlin, a spokesperson for Evergreen Court, said they were “independent contractors hired to do the kosherization” of the establishment for Passover.

Walsh said their alleged actions were determined to start the fire. But, he did not specify the cause of the fire or why their actions were illegal.

The Journal News / LoHud previously reported that investigators were focusing on whether the torch cleaning complied with regulations, including having someone to monitor after the fact, and whether the house alarm system The facility connected to the county’s central dispatch center was reactivated after the cleanup.

The facility acknowledged that the system had been disabled for cleaning – a routine practice to avoid setting off a false alarm at the center.

Has a cause of the fire been determined?

It’s unclear. State fire investigators worked with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, United States Homeland Security, and Spring Valley Police. At least some of these agencies were present last week for a raid at Spring Valley Village Hall in which more than two dozen boxes were removed.

While the building was supposed to have working sprinklers, investigators were examining the low water pressure provided to working-class neighborhoods by SUEZ-NY and how it affected firefighters. Firefighters had to drag hoses for the blocks to find hydrants with sufficient water pressure while trying to put out the flames.

SUEZ-NY officials declined to comment other than public service officials cooperate with investigators, as well as the state Civil Service Commission. The PSC oversees public services.

The PSC is investigating the water pressure on Lafayette Street, an investigation that joins the criminal investigation.

Why weren’t the details discussed on Tuesday?

Walsh, a retiree on trial in his second year as the county’s senior prosecutor, declined to provide details beyond the charges against each of the accused, he said, in order to protect the sanctity of the investigation, which is ongoing.

He declined to say whether he was planning any further arrests. The office did not respond to questions on Wednesday.

He said a grand jury would hear the evidence, but did not provide a deadline.

Ray Canario, Deputy Chief of the Spring Valley Fire Department, stands next to overused and obsolete equipment that his firefighters use on February 12, 2016 at the Spring Valley Fire Department.

What is the building department accused of?

Concerns about the building department intensified with the arrests.

Canario, an inspector and former fire chief who was promoted from the public works ministry, faces a maximum of four years in prison. Ballard, the head of the department, faces the same.

State, local and federal investigators looked at the last time the village inspected the Evergreen Court Home for Adults for compliance with the fire safety and security code.

What remains unclear after Walsh’s announcement is which reports were allegedly falsified and when.

Spring Valley officials, including Mayor Alan Simon, have refused to release inspection reports and other documents requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, although the adult home has of a history of violations cited by the State.

Wayne ballard

Other adult homes belonging to the Schonberger family also had violations cited by the state. Violations were found, including vermin, at the family’s Golden Acres Home for Adults, a 79-bed facility on Prospect Street in Spring Valley. Residents of Evergreen Court were sent there after the fire.

Simon reorganized the building department, removing former inspectors and hiring Ballard at a salary of $ 172,000 to the ministry and to the DPW.

Ballard was the head of the DPW in Clarkstown, but was dismissed mainly because of his hiring of then-lawmaker Frank Sparaco, R-Clarkstown, for a part-time job of $ 90,000 a year to handle complaints from residents. He was also named in a sex discrimination lawsuit still before the courts.

Sparaco spent time in prison on a separate conviction under the electoral law.

Are Evergreen employees billed?

Although Kerr was the facility manager and spokesperson in the days following the fire, the facility maintains that Lema was not an employee at the time of the first fire. We don’t know what his role was.

Walsh said they were arrested “for their actions from inside the facility before the fire started.”

The district attorney’s office did not respond on Wednesday when asked whether Kerr and Lema have surrendered.

Kerr faces a second-degree reckless endangerment charge, and Lema faces second-degree impersonation and obstruction of government administration charges.

New York State Police fire investigators at the scene of a fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in Spring Valley on March 24, 2021.

What oversight has there been?

Problems of fire and security breaches have plagued the densely packed 2½ square mile working-class village of over 32,000 people for years, including large populations of Caribbean, Haitian, Hispanic and African-American people and of the Hasidic Jewish communities.

Gordon Wren Jr., a retired county fire coordinator, and officials of the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force and Schools, said Evergreen Court is a tentacle of greater danger.

The lack of enforcement has led the state to assign monitors to oversee construction departments in Spring Valley and Ramapo.

In response to questions regarding the arrests and the role of the comptroller overseeing the Spring Valley Building Department, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office offered this response:

“The State Department understands that ongoing investigations are being conducted by law enforcement agencies regarding the village of Spring Valley. In light of these ongoing investigations, the State Department cannot provide any comments regarding this matter at this time, other than that the State Department fully agrees to cooperate with any ongoing investigation by law enforcement agencies. “

Chris Kear, county fire coordinator and retired firefighter, said he was not aware of the details of the investigation but was supportive of the truth about the Evergreen Court fire. Equally important, he added, is creating a culture of enforcement to ensure the safety of people and first responders.

Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police and investigations. Contact him at [email protected] Twitter: @lohudlegal. Read more articles and biography. Our local coverage is only possible with the support of our readers.

About the author